The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues
FEB 2020 Issue
Field Notes

"Here Be Dragons"

American Dirt and the Misrepresentation of Mexico

Early in the 16th century, Europe was flooded with written descriptions of the New World. Their authors described a wild, fanciful place populated by freakish monsters—sea serpents, towering beasts, humans with two heads or no head at all. The Americas were a savage wilderness indeed.

As it would later turn out, many of these authors had never even been here. At best, a few of them briefly disembarked in the West Indies once or twice. They had heard rumors of this strange new land, though, and decided to write their own fan fiction. We cannot know, for certain, what prompted them to do so. Maybe they were imaginative people who just wanted to tell an entertaining story. Some may have even had altruistic motives, hoping to bring attention to the suffering in the New World. Regardless of their personal motivations, however, their stories had one concrete effect: they enabled colonialism.

Jump ahead to the 21st century: The US publishing industry has recently thrown its weight behind a novel about migrants in Mexico: American Dirt (2020) by Jeanine Cummins. The story follows Lydia Quixano and her son, Luca, as they flee from drug traffickers. They leave their hometown of Acapulco and ride across Mexico atop the freight train known as La Bestia, trying to reach the US border along with other migrants. John Grisham described the book as “rich in authenticity.” Stephen King called it “an important voice in the discussion about immigration,” while Rumaan Alam raved that “the story of the migrant is the story of our times, and Jeanine Cummins is a worthy chronicler.” Don Winslow described it as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” Cummins received a seven-figure advance for the book1, and Clint Eastwood is rumored to have optioned it for the big screen. On the other hand, in the short time since the release of American Dirt, some dissenting voices have already been silenced. Chicana author Myriam Gurba was one of the first to review the book, commissioned by an ostensibly progressive publication. Her review was rejected for being “too negative.” Gurba was paid a nominal kill fee and forced to post her review online instead. The literary establishment seems to have deemed this book “too big to fail.”

I’ll grant this—the narrative is well-paced. It is an exciting, blood-drenched, action-packed adventure, with a very cinematic feel to it. I can imagine that it might sound believable to a reader who has never set foot on Mexican soil. But in fact this book is nearly as inaccurate as those old colonial monster tales. As someone who has spent half a lifetime in Mexico and on the border region, I am shocked that this book was ever given the green light. American Dirt is a gross misrepresentation of this nation, its culture, and, most importantly, its migrants. The fact that it has been selected by US publishers and publicists to represent the migrant’s story—to the exclusion of hundreds of other books—is deeply revealing.

The errors in this novel are deep and pervasive—right down to the misspelling of the main characters’ names. Cummins gives Lydia and Luca the last name “Quixano,” despite the fact that “Quijano” has not been spelled with an X since the days of medieval Spain. As early as the 15th century, before the Spanish came to the Americas, it had given way to the contemporary spelling of “Quijano.” An even more egregious error lies in the young boy’s name. While the Biblical name Luke is rendered “Luca” in distant Romania and Hungary, the correct spelling in Mexico is “Lucas.” This is especially significant, given the fact that Spanish names ending in -a are traditionally feminine. When even the main characters’ names are misspelled, what can one expect from the rest of a novel? Can you imagine an author from Tokyo claiming to write a quintessential American story through the eyes of a man named “Franncine Jhonson”?

The confusion continues with the names of the book’s villains. The main drug kingpin, Javier, goes by the nickname of “La Lechuza” (The Owl). This may sound menacing to Anglophone readers, with that exotic article “La” and the ominous letter Z. In central and southern Mexico, however—where Acapulco is located—owls are most commonly called búhos or tecolotes. The word lechuza brings to mind the friendly, mail-delivering owls of the Harry Potter universe.Javier’s drug cartel is named Los Jardineros, translated as “The Gardeners.” I’m sure that for many US readers, this name evokes stereotypical images of landscapers driving pick-up trucks with leaf-blowers in the back. Here in Mexico, however, the term is nearly meaningless, as landscaping is just one of many duties performed by the staff and servants of the wealthy.

Many Chicano authors include untranslated Spanish phrases when writing in English. This is especially handy for concepts that are difficult to translate, or for slang that is particularly Mexican. There is a particular cultural authenticity to a phrase like “órale, cabrón” that cannot be conveyed with “right on, dude.” Cummins mimics this convention, but does so artlessly. In an attempt to add a spicy cultural touch, she sprinkles Spanish words throughout in italics, seemingly at random. She writes refresco instead of soft drink, abuela instead of grandma, señora rather than ma’am. Meanwhile, the author fails to use Mexican expressions where they would actually be useful. Almost without fail, her cultural references and slang words are Anglocentric. She describes drug traffickers as “the bogeyman of urban Mexico,” rather than El Cucuy. Lydia thinks of a policeman’s lies as “horseshit,” rather than pendejadas or chingaderas.

And while the book’s editor ran a proper spell-check of the Spanish words, the author appears to have no idea what many of them mean. In an early scene when Lydia looks down at her own murdered mother, she thinks of her as Abuela. This was how the matriarch was referred to during an earlier scene from the point of view of Luca, but no adult would think of her own mother with the word for grandmother.

When dialogue is written entirely in English, Cummins often uses purposefully odd syntax, bordering on broken English. Lydia speaks with a police detective after a massacre and the detective cuts her off with “No more questions. Zero more questions.” This sentence confused me, due to its poor syntax in both English and Spanish. I finally realized what the author was going for: She is trying to make this sound like it was translated from Spanish… But she doesn’t know Spanish! One thinks of the purposefully-stilted “Engrish” used by Anglo authors when writing bad Asian stereotypes.

Far more significant than these linguistic gaffes, however, are the cultural misrepresentations. The entire book is a case study in Mexican culture as imagined by an outsider, barely more accurate than the film The Three Amigos (1986).

Anyone who has lived in Mexico will find the setting of Cummins’s novel to be extremely foreign. Lydia and Luca flee the drug traffickers and travel across the country atop the freight train, passing through radically different states and regions: the coastal and tropical Guerrero, the colonial towns of Guanajuato, the arid deserts of Sonora. Unfortunately, none of these regional differences are reflected in Cummins’s narrative. Places hundreds of miles apart, with their own cuisine and jargon and customs and aesthetic, are homogenized into an imaginary “Mexican drab.” Picture a Belgian author describing a “typical American city” where Mardi Gras, barn dances, surfing contests, rodeos, and New York subway stations all exist on the same street.

Cummins peppers the scenery with the stereotypical cultural icons that Americans associate with Mexico. The initial massacre scene takes place at “a quinceañera party” (although in fact such events are referred to as a fiesta de quince años in Mexico; the word “quinceañera” refers to the girl turning 15). A flashback scene takes care to mention the Day of the Dead holiday, incorrectly rendering it with the English syntax, Día de los [sic] Muertos. When the narco Javier comes to visit Lydia at the bookstore she owns, he romances her with all the clichéd imagery of the “Latin lover.” (I’m guessing Antonio Banderas will be courted for the film version.) After expressing his love of literature, Javier woos her by bringing her—of all gifts—a concha roll, the cheapest of all sweetbreads. This criminal millionaire courts the woman by bringing her a nearly worthless piece of bread. In real life, a narco boss would give her the keys to a new Mercedes, or at least a bottle of top-shelf Scotch. The only value of a cheap concha roll lies in its cultural fetishism. These “Mexican curios” are incongruously mixed in with other images that are glaringly out of place. Although the opening scene occurs in the coastal town of Acapulco—a place rich in local cuisine, with myriad forms of fresh seafood and strong African influences—the family is eating carne asada and barbeque chicken. Not even Mexican-style grilled chicken, but drumsticks with sweet, Kansas City-style BBQ sauce on it, a condiment foreign to much of Mexico.

I can imagine the reaction of some readers: “What’s the big deal, though? So what if an author gets a few cultural details wrong, misspells a few names?” The misrepresentations in American Dirt go much deeper, though.

Cummins’s ostensibly Mexican characters behave as if they had never even visited Mexico, much less grown up here. Lydia is shocked to learn how powerful the drug traffickers are (despite her husband’s journalism). She is surprised to learn that Javier, a well-dressed man with muscle-bound bodyguards, is involved in organized crime. (Gasp!) She is even surprised to learn that Mexico City has an ice-skating rink, something every Mexican citizen knows from watching the news. This flawed perspective is present in even the smallest details. On the very first page of the book, Luca notes that the shower in his grandmother’s bathroom has no curtain or sliding door. While this might stand out to a tourist from the US, it is entirely unremarkable to anyone here in Mexico. Lydia’s journalist husband, Sebastián, has supposedly been investigating Javier for some time—and yet he never mentioned the powerful drug kingpin to his wife. When the criminals attack Sebastián for publishing an exposé on Javier, they fail to follow any of the habitual practices of real-life cartels. (Not to mention, any Acapulco journalist who covered the cartels so brazenly would have been executed long ago.)

The most glaring misrepresentations are related to the migrants’ journey atop the freight train La Bestia. Lydia and Luca escape Acapulco with their life savings, equivalent to $12,500 US dollars, stuffed into Lydia’s sock. This presents a cartoonish image, given that in Mexican pesos this would come to over 400 bills in cash. Lydia’s savings would look like a comically large tumor on her leg. And how do Lydia and her son board the train? By jumping onto it, in full motion, from a bridge. This might work in a Die Hard sequel. (At least in one created by the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.) In the real world, though, migrants risk their lives just trying to climb onto La Bestia from the ground. Even when it passes through town at a low speed, one false step can be fatal. Hundreds have fallen beneath its wheels and lost arms and legs. These basic facts of migration are entirely off Cummins’s radar.

An even more glaring error is the logic behind Lydia’s decision: the train is described as the one place beyond the reach of the criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the southern tip of Mexico to the northern border, the train is controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha gang. Gang members regularly climb onto La Bestia brandishing firearms and machetes, raping female travelers, and robbing migrants of every last peso. When someone refuses to cooperate, the Maras mutilate them or throw them from the train. This horror is glaringly absent from Cummins’s fanciful story. The worst threat atop the train is one man, an accomplice of Javier, who follows Lydia and her son on board. No Mara Salvatrucha, no raids, no machetes, no problem.

The positive message of the book is, “Guess what, migrants are people too!” To be sure, there are many in the US who still need to hear this message. For educated readers interested in the border, however, it should come as no great epiphany. Meanwhile, the author presents a one-dimensional picture of Mexico as a perennially backward land. One character is said to press “the buttons on her phone,” as if smartphones had never made it down here. The Mexican characters of American Dirt are cartoonish, depicted either as villains or victims. The author herself writes that she is “more interested in stories about victims than perpetrators,” as if those were the only two options. And therein lies the problem: real-life migrants are neither victims nor victimizers, but rather active agents of their own stories.

On the other hand, the United States of American Dirt is a fantasy world, a nation free of mass shootings, hate groups, and organized crime. Thus a false dichotomy is drawn between the two countries: “Mexico = violence and chaos. US = freedom and peace.” While the novel’s message is ostensibly progressive, it plays harmony to the chorus of Trumpism: “Crime and violence are Mexican problems.” All things considered, this novel is an affront to journalists, to migrants, and to the entire Republic of Mexico. It is one giant middle finger—or, as folks here in Mexico say, es una mentada de madre.

The book has already sparked a backlash in the Chicano literary world. Author Myriam Gurba described it, in her scathing review, as “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf.”2 When I spoke with her about the book, she summed it up in one succinct term: “brownface.” David Bowles (Macuil Ehecatl) has mentioned Dirt in a series of livid Tweets. He describes it as an “appropriating, inaccurate, torture-porn book” that perpetuates the white savior complex. Going into more detail, he writes, “Do you guys know HOW FUCKING LITTLE Mexican writers get paid? Especially WOMEN writing in Mexico? And most Chicanas are shit out of luck, too.”

Cummins herself addresses this issue in the epilogue to American Dirt. Describing her earlier misgivings about telling this tale, she recalls, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” Since the release of American Dirt, though, she has been actively rebranding herself to establish her ethnic credentials. While she previously described herself as white3, Cummins now claims the title Latinx, emphasizing her Puerto Rican grandmother. Her Twitter account identifies her as “Boricua Persona,” which is broken Spanish for “a Puerto Rican person,” and she emphasizes that her husband is a former undocumented immigrant (omitting the fact that he hails from Ireland). This fixation on race misses the point, though: the key issue is not one of pigmentation, but information.

Plenty of non-Mexican authors have written wonderful, in-depth books on this great nation. The late John Ross covered Mexican history and politics for decades. David Lida writes travel narratives as only a long-time resident of Mexico City can. David Bacon is one of the seminal voices on Mexican labor issues for English-speaking readers. It would be silly to claim that an author can only write about characters who share their own gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth. If so, the world of literature would be a boring place indeed. That said, though, there is one hard-set rule—an author needs to know what they are talking about.

John Steinbeck was intimately familiar with the communities he described. He walked and worked alongside the migrant farm workers who populate his novels. Considering this fact, Don Winslow’s comparison of American Dirt with Steinbeck’s novel could not be more inappropriate. Cummins’s book reads like The Grapes of Wrath, if it had been written by a Frenchman who spoke no English, spent his entire life in Europe, took one train trip across Oklahoma, and decided that he was qualified to tell these people’s story.

One could counter that Cummins is bringing attention to an important issue. This was the case made by author Sandra Cisneros when I met her at a recent book presentation in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Cisneros defended her choice to positively blurb American Dirt, as she feels that it contributes to the conversation, despite its inaccuracies. After all, she emphasized to me, it is a work of fiction. Many others have echoed this sentiment: isn’t it enough that Cummins is bringing attention to the issue? What is so harmful about a novel that draws from the author’s imagination, if her intentions are good?

Some fictions are more innocuous than others. When the musical The Book of Mormon (2011) came out, the LDS Church responded in good nature, recognizing it as an obvious work of satire. Nobody complains that Black Panther (2018) misrepresents African culture. We have come to expect such inaccuracy in fiction. Hollywood has a long history of misrepresenting cultures, languages, and historical periods: Robert DeNiro does a terrible Southern accent, Keanu Reeves plays a surfer-talking Englishman, and countless Italian and Swedish actors are hired to play Russians. Most films set in the Middle Ages are full of modern anachronisms.

A dramatic novel like American Dirt, however, claims to represent a present reality. And today no information is neutral when it comes to topics like Mexico, the border, and migration. Mexico has been vilified and demonized by media outlets and extremist groups in the US, from the political fringes to the White House itself. A culture of deliberate misinformation exists. The antidote to hateful falsehoods about Mexico and migrants is not well-intentioned, positive falsehoods—it’s the truth.

Truthful information about Mexico and migration is not hard to come by. We aren’t living in 16th century Europe, where most people would never see the Americas firsthand. How could they not believe those fanciful accounts of the New World? For all they knew, people here might very well have two heads and ride about on sea serpents. In the 21st century, however, Mexico is right next door. 36 million people in the US have Mexican ancestry. Hundreds of contemporary Mexican and Chicano authors write about Mexico from firsthand experience, telling their own stories through journalism, narrative nonfiction, novels, and films.

In fact, at its best moments American Dirt simply copies from these works—most notably, from the writings of Sonia Nazario and Luis Alberto Urrea. One scene describes a garbage dump in Tijuana that appears in Urrea’s 1993 book, Across the Wire, but hasn’t existed for some 20 years. The descriptions of Pastor Ignacio and his migrant shelter in Celaya, central Mexico, were clearly copied from Urrea’s blogs and Facebook posts. Cummins makes one glaring omission, though: Pastor Ignacio provides special attention to amputee victims. I visited his shelter early this January, and heard from migrants who had lost arms and legs. The important thing is, they suffered these accidents on the train, either by falling onto the tracks or falling victim to Mara gang members. These are precisely the kind of facts that Cummins’s story fails to reflect.

Sadly, hundreds of other authors—people intimately familiar with these issues—are still struggling to make a living. Many have already written novels every bit as riveting, fast-paced, and dramatically scored as American Dirt, with the added benefit of having their facts straight.

So why wasn’t one of their books picked to be “the next great novel on Mexico and migration”? One can’t fault Cummins for accepting a seven-figure advance for her novel. What author wouldn’t? I’m willing to imagine that she truly wants to bring attention to a key issue and help alleviate human suffering. The real culprit is the publishing industry. Why has so much money been thrown at this particular novel, while more qualified authors wait in query-and-proposal purgatory?

One reason may lie in the glaring absence of Latinos in the publishing industry. In his essay Big Lit Meets the Mexican Americans: A Study in White Supremacy (2020), Michael Nava explores the ethnic homogeneity of the publishing world. According to a survey in Publishers Weekly from last year, 84 percent of employees identify as white. Another survey from 2015 indicates that only six percent of people in Big Lit are Latino.4 In an industry this homogenous, editors are bound to suffer significant blind spots. This, and other forms of systemic inequality, lead to disproportionate privileges. Nava cites a study by Roxane Gay, reporting that 90 percent of the books reviewed in 2011 were by white authors. David Mura’s essay, “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program” (2015), describes the difficulties faced by non-white writing students.

Nava points to another major culprit as well: the false belief, common among many editors, that “Latinos don’t read books,” much less write them. Therein lies the true tragedy of American Dirt’s success. Rather than “giving a voice to the voiceless,” it actually overshadows the voices of the voiceful. As David Bowles tweeted, regarding the book’s upcoming movie adaptation: “You know how long some of us Chicanx and Mexican creators have been trying to get stuff off the ground in Hollywood?” In placing this novel at center stage, the literary world has edged out the real, firsthand testimonies of thousands of migrants, journalists, and authors. Realistic works by Mexican and Chicano authors are rejected, in favor of an abject fantasy. Imagine the curator of a Native American cultural museum paying $5,000 for a plastic tomahawk, while tossing actual indigenous artifacts into the trash. Imagine a dystopian world where Denzel Washington languishes in low-budget productions, while Malcolm X is played by Tom Hanks.

I’ll grant Cummins one point: migration and the border are extremely important topics. Precisely because of their importance, readers in the US deserve accurate information. Thankfully, many skilled writers have been writing about this issue for years. One of the greatest contemporary authors on migration and Mexico grew up on both sides of the border. Luis Alberto Urrea has written about the border region for decades, beginning with his non-fiction collections Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children (1996). His nonfiction narrative, The Devil’s Highway (2005), describes the fatal journey of 26 migrants through the Arizona desert. His novel Into the Beautiful North (2010), while a work of fiction, is rooted in the concrete realities of the border. Sonia Nazario’s novel Enrique’s Journey (2006) is another heartbreaking and moving account of the migrant’s experience. In fact, the most accurate parts of Cummins’s novel are simply lifted from these authors’ books. Tina Vasquez and Aura Bogado are two award-winning US reporters who have been covering immigration for years. Here in Mexico, journalists Lydia Cacho and Anabel Hernández have written at length about crime and drug trafficking. To learn about the perilous journey of migrants atop the freight train La Bestia, I highly recommend the 2005 Mexican documentary by Tin Dirdamal, De Nadie. The fictional film Sin Nombre (2009) depicts this sojourn with an accurate and gripping narrative; Luis Mandoki’s film, La vida precoz y breve de Sabina Rivas (2012), examines migration and exploitation on Mexico’s southern border.

Mexico is no stranger to literature. People here have been writing their own stories for centuries, from the ancient poet-king Nezahualcóyotl to Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, from Juan Rulfo to Carlos Fuentes. While the Puritans were still hanging witches in Salem, Mexicans were studying literature at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. No matter how many walls Trump puts up, no matter how often the lies are repeated, people here will continue to write and speak in their own voices. In this time of interconnectivity, there is simply no reason to ignore them. Mexico is the next-door neighbor of the US, a nation willing and able to tell its own story. Pay no heed to the fantasies and false representations—the age of foreign monsters and “here be dragons” warnings is long behind us. The truth is here, and it is readily available.




David Schmidt

David Schmidt is an author, podcaster, multilingual translator, and homebrewer who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, California.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues